They called it the War to End All Wars. They called it the London Fire and the Trail of Tears. But they were all wrong. It was called the Great Depression, and the hoboes saw it coming.
1929, October. Black Thursday. The 24th day of October, 1929: the day the stock market crashed, instantly wiping out $30 billion in stock value. Soon after, the Bank of the United States would collapse, trapping all inside, many of them orphans. From his hover-yacht in the Caspian Sea, President Hoover reassured the panicked nation that only foreigners and the mentally feeble would suffer. But the damage was too great. After a decade of high-flying prosperity, the United States’ economy fell to earth and began tunnelling to an awful volcanic core of despair, food riots cloying folk songs, and lava. By March, 250,000 apple sellers would crowd the streets of Manhattan, desperately refusing to sell any other kind of fruit. But apples and sellers alike were easy pickings… for the hoboes.
There had been hoboes in the United Sates since there had been trains and liquor, which is to say; always. But by 1930, an estimated two million broken souls had taken to the wandering life, hopping boxcars, picking up work where they could find it, and drinking, drinking, drinking. When Prohibition reigned, the hoboes knew of secret stills and hidden lakes of moonshine. It made them strong and wilful, and it made them blind and disfigured, and it spurred them to sing strange guttural songs in croaking voices that haunted the American night.
In may ways, they were a nation unto themselves. They had their own currency in the form of “hobo nickels” – the ordinary buffalo nickels onto which they would intricately carve new words and imagines, changing the Indian head to a picture of a hobo or changing the buffalo into a large hairy man wearing a clock and fake horns. Another common craft was lint-knitting, using scraps of wool fuzz from pilled sweaters to make new sweaters, which they would then attempt to sell door to door. They had their own flag, which was identical to the flag of Barbados (this was either a coincidence or a deliberate effort to confuse).
And they devised a secret language of signs and scrawls used to alert their passing brethren to danger or opportunity. A crucifix chalked on the side of a house meant that religious talk would get you a free meal inside. A picture of a cat meant “a kind woman lives here.” But intersecting circles warned that the local sheriff carried throwing stars, while twin W’s meant a mean dog slept in the yard and would rise on two legs and whisper secrets if you slept in the bushes. On some alley walls in whistle-stop towns you might find a cryptic translation of the complete text of Tristram Shandy, as that was the hobo’s favorite novel. And a picture of an H with sunrays around it meant that the hour had come: it was time to overthrow the government of the United States.
When in the spring of 1032 great masses of unemployed veterans descended upon Washington to urge the passing of the Bonus Bill, hoboes came with them. Under the leadership of Joey Stink-Eye Smiles, they infiltrated the White House, pocketing sandwiches and replacing the Secretary of the Treasury Ogden mills with one of their own, Hobo Joe Junkpan. And Across the country they began to coordinated reign of terror: soiling featherbeds, salting the cornfields, and dancing manic, heavy-footed jigs on parlor floors while ordinary citizens looked on in horror. In Kansas City, a hobo declared himself Duke of All the West and began demanding tithes. They wanted beep beer and warm hats. They wanted bent nails and pieces of string. they demanded half barrels of swallowfeather sauce, and no one knew what they were talking about.
At his inauguration in 1933, a new, crippled president named Roosevelt addressed the nervous crowd: “The people of the United states have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate, that they want direct, vigorous action. And so I will kill all the hoboes, and together we will gnaw on their bones.” It was time for a comprehensive hobo Eradication Plan called “The New Deal.”
The president acted swiftly. He established the Civilian Conservation and Hobo Fighting Corps. He took the country off the gold standard, denying the hoboes the use of their precious teeth. The Works Progress Administration was created largely as a cover for Walker Evans, photographer by day, hobo hunter by night. He had only one target: Joey Stink-Eye Smiles. But Smiles was slippery, twice eluding the photographer’s poisoned darts before disappearing into a ditch or a shrub. Now it was war. The hoboes retaliated by sneaking up behind the White House and whistling very loudly. They wrote confusing, illiterate editorials. And they summoned giant dust storms that stalked the land, eroding topsoil and swallowing small towns whole.
Finally the president knew there was only one way to end the hoboes’ march across the blighted land: polio. Alone in his secret White House lab, Roosevelt created a concentrated serum of the dreaded disease that would be placed in the nation’s water supply by the Tennessee valley Authority. According to his contemporaries, Roosevelt was tortured by this decision. He knew that a certain number of non- hobo citizens would spend the rest of their lives in iron lungs as a result of his actions, but it would finally put a stop to the wandering people – starting at their feet and ending at their waists.
But then came Pearl Harbor. Some say Roosevelt knew the Japanese would attack that infamous December 7th. the truth is, he didn’t. But the hoboes did. And as the tragic war that followed put a final end to the Great Depression, so too did it put an end to the hobo war. As quickly as they had come, the hoboes mysteriously disappeared. No one knows where they went, or why. Some say they found patriotism in their hearts, joining the war against a common enemy. Others say they went to the stars or to another dimension. And still others say they live on today, moving quietly from town to town, preparing for the time when their great chicken-bone and moonshine empire will rise again. Is it possible? No, most historians agree that they almost certainly went to the stars.
But if you live near a railway track and listen as the train passes, it is almost as if you can still hear them singing- the dark and lonely wind of history still blowing from their rotted lungs.